Chapter 7

Appraising tea

The work of a tea master is to preserve the flavor profile

We grow our own tea, and at the same time, we purchase tea grown by tea farmers, turn it into products and sell them.

Every year in late April, Uji holds its first market for shincha (literally “new tea”, first tea of the season). Since we only use first-picked tea, we purchase and stock up until as late as June. As this coincides with the tea picking period, we are extremely busy. We head for the tea plantation at five-thirty in the morning and then to the market later at eight o’clock. We repeat this process almost every day for almost two months just so that we can purchase and stock up on the entire year’s supply of tea leaves.

The tea leaves sold by tea farmers in the market is called “aracha” (literally “unrefined tea”), which is steamed and dried the same day it was picked. As aracha is irregularly shaped and contain a mixture of stems and branches, they are first sifted and sorted after we purchased them. We then dry them out thoroughly in the furnace again so that they can be kept for a long period. This reprocessed tea is then blended and sold in stores as “shiagecha” (literally, “finished tea”).

In the world of tea, blending is called “gogumi”, and the person who is responsible for that is called a “tea master”.

A crucial aspect in blending is to preserve the “flavor profile”. The same Uji tea will vary depending on the cultivation area and tea producer, as well as the climate of the year. The tea master’s job is to distinguish the subtle differences and blend tea leaves from several cultivars to create teas with the same flavor. The tea master has to make sure that tea dealers can offer blended teas with the same taste and quality throughout the year, which will in turn create the store’s credibility.

There is class to good tea

Words like “pine green” and “bamboo green” are used to describe the colors of tencha. Pine green refers to dark green tencha grown in sandy plains, and has a mild umami flavor. Bamboo green refers to yellowish-green tencha grown in the red clay near mountains, and has a strong, deep flavor. Tea masters are able to predict the flavors in the subtle differences between these colors.

Day after day of looking and tasting teas will sharpen their senses to the extent that they can even tell the type of climate and people that grew the tea.

Good tea leaves have a beautiful and elegant appearance. The glossy, bright and fresh green color tells us that the leaves were picked in season, not too early or too late. In addition, the beautifully uniform shapes of the tea leaves that are not crushed are proof that they have been carefully processed. Its weight in your hands also tells you that it has more than enough umami in its leaves.

After appearance, the most important things to look for are the aroma as well as the color of the tea after the tea leaves are steeped in hot water. For tencha, we also look at the color of the steeped tea leaves, which is called “kara-iro”, as a reference to the color when it is ground into matcha.

The ideal sencha should have the aroma of fresh young leaves rising when hot water is poured into the teapot, and the color of the tea should be a bright clear amber that is not cloudy. A burnt aroma indicates that the tea leaves were dried under overly-high temperatures. If the color of the tea is cloudy or sediments can be seen, it means that the tea leaves were over-steamed and mixed with crushed tea leaves.

Shade-grown cultivated gyokuro and tencha exude a “covering aroma” – a rich and unique fragrance that can also be described as a scent similar to that of the sea. Also, the color of the tea made with high-quality tea leaves, regardless of how long they were steeped, will not change.

For sencha, it should be a harmonious combination of umami, sweetness, and astringency, with a smooth and refreshing aftertaste. For gyokuro and tencha, it should be a straightforward taste with little quirks replete with a rich umami flavor.

Look at the "appearance" of the tea leaves, the aroma, the taste, the light blue color, and the color of the used tea leaves.

Since our establishment, we have always valued the “genuine” flavors of Uji tea.

Tea has emerged in various forms over time and has become a part of our daily lives. Matcha has been elevated to the spiritual world of tea ceremony. Gyokuro and sencha, on the other hand, enrich our daily lives. It has been nearly 40 years since conveniently bottled green tea beverages were introduced into the market. In recent years, matcha is frequently being used for food products like such as confectionary.

All of these are branches and leaves that are abundantly nurtured by the large stem of the tea plant. At Horii Shichimeien, we will continue to pursue and pass on the blessings offered by a cup of tea right here in the land of Uji, and thereby write a new story in the history of Uji tea.

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